business advice | Mar 20, 2019 |
After a 30-year career, do I still need to belong to a professional association?

Dear Sean,

I’ve been a certified designer for more than 30 years, and three decades into my career, I’m as active and as interested in the design industry as ever. I attended five design shows last year, including two in Europe, and am busy making plans to add services to my business—in short, I’m all in. I’ve long heard people weighing the benefits of professional associations, and now I’m in that place myself: My membership is up for renewal, and while I strongly encourage accreditation for my younger colleagues—and really, for anyone at any age—I’ve started to ask myself some questions.

It’s not the money I’m objecting to, exactly, but the feeling that the cost is a necessary one. I have zero animosity toward professional organizations and would speak positively about mine in the future—the organization in question has without a doubt been a critical piece of my success as a professional. But at this point, doesn’t my body of work speak for me? The “about me” section of my site is filled with awards, accomplishments and examples of my expertise. Could I also note that I am a former certified designer? I’ll still be a strong friend and advocate for my industry—I’m just not sure that should require paying annual dues.

Real Deal

Dear Real Deal,

Professional associations play a valuable role in the design community. First and foremost, they create standards of excellence that help the consumer understand the level of expertise that a professional has as they undertake what will always be a very scary, intimidating and expensive process. Knowing that you have had to do the work to become a member of a professional group goes a long way in easing concerns a client might have about your ability to get the job done. This, of course, is the argument for continuing your membership despite all of the accolades you have received during your long and illustrious career.

But the above said, you should consider not maintaining your membership.

Think about when you first started. The internet was nascent; there was no Amazon (1994), Google (1998), or Facebook (2004). The iPhone (2007) and all things mobile was still a pipe dream, and the ability to communicate ideas and information was largely an analog endeavor. Print media defined design and being part of that media is what gave you credibility. As a result, professional organizations were a singular resource for consumers to know if you could be trusted to renovate and decorate. The badge of membership mattered mostly because there was no easy way for potential clients to evaluate members independent of organizations like yours.

Today, none of this is true. Yes, these organizations are still important and membership shows a commitment to the industry. But as a validator of expertise, it is only one in a sea of many ways that a potential client can discover your work and your credentials on their own. Couple that with a client’s megaphone if you are inept at your craft, and you will quickly discover that while the very purpose of an organization as a validator has not yet faded to oblivion, it is getting closer every day. In addition, the teachings and techniques a member will discover through the organization are not proprietary; in the age of online sharing, they will be discovered by everyone in very short order.

The only reason for someone like you to belong to a professional organization today is to maintain a spirit of collegiality, and out of a desire to continue to push the industry forward by setting ever-higher standards that all designers can aspire to. However, it is clear from your question that you do not see this organization as the place for professional growth and community, but rather as a validator for your business—something you no longer need.

We all have to give up the idea that clients are looking for shortcuts to feel good about their decisions to hire a particular designer, like whether or not that designer was featured in media or is part of a professional organization. They never were. Clients were just limited in their ability to discover who the designers were in the first place, and whether those designers had the chops to help them meet their needs. Those limitations are history, and we as a design industry should embrace the beauty of information now available to all clients.

One way to do that is to transform our professional organizations into champions of a community, not its definers. If we do that, opportunity abounds to reshape the client’s perception of value—and as a result, to reshape the industry as a whole. If that happens, perhaps you might consider rejoining—or maybe even leading—your local chapter.


After a 30-year career, do I still need to belong to a professional association?Sean Low is the the go-to business coach for interior designers. His clients have included Nate Berkus, Sawyer Berson, Vicente Wolf, Barry Dixon, Kevin Isbell and McGrath II. Low earned his law degree from the University of Pennsylvania, and as founder-president of The Business of Being Creative, he has long consulted for design businesses. In his Business Advice column for BOH, he answers designers’ most pressing questions. Have a dilemma? Send us an email—and don’t worry, we can keep your details anonymous.

Homepage photo: Shutterstock.com

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